McCosky: Ausmus is the least of the Tigers’ problems

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Manager Brad Ausmus

Washington, D.C. — Love it when I hear this:

“Chris, when will you have the guts to write that (Tigers manager Brad) Ausmus should be fired?”

Guts? The easiest sports column to write in Detroit on Sunday was that the Tigers needed to fire the manager. Given that’s been the prevailing sentiment among the more vociferous segment of the fan base for over a year, that angle wasn’t even the low-hanging fruit. It was already on the ground rotting, waiting to be picked up.

Especially for non-traveling media on a getaway Sunday when the team will be gone for the next seven days. It’s a sniper attack. A hit-and-run.

No, sorry. The only courage I need is the courage of my convictions. And it is my conviction — based on talking to players, talking to scouts inside and outside the organization, and talking to Ausmus and watching him go about his business nearly every day for the last two-plus years — that he is the least of this team’s problems.

In fact, I can’t for the life of me see how he is a problem at all.

I will wait for the lunatic fringe to stop howling and calling me a shill. Never mind, that’s not going to stop. Ever.

If you think the Tigers’ inconsistencies are a product of mismanagement, I beg you to give me concrete examples.

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Here’s what I hear from people:

“He’s got that deer-in-the-headlights look.”

“He’s a California surfer boy; too laid back to fire up the team.”

“He’s an Ivy League snob, thinks he knows everything.”

When Justin Upton was struggling hitting second: “Why doesn’t Ausmus change the lineup?”

When J.D. Martinez was struggling hitting second: “Why doesn’t Ausmus get J.D. out of two-hole, what is he doing?”

When the bullpen fails: “Why did he take out the starting pitcher?”

When the starter fails: “Why did he wait so long to go to the bullpen?”

If a bunt fails? “What’s he doing having him bunt? Giving away outs.”

When no bunt is called and the batter hits into an inning-ended double play: “He’s gotta bunt there.”

It just doesn’t stop.

Placing wrong blame

A large majority see Ausmus’ calm, stoic demeanor in the dugout and assume there’s no fire inside him. I can assure you, this guy’s competitiveness burns intensely. If you think he doesn’t blow up at his players occasionally, you are dead wrong. He just doesn’t think it serves any purpose to do it publicly, in the dugout or on the field.

He’s right. You want a calm hand at the helm, especially in stormy weather. You don’t want a manager who’s running around the dugout like his butt’s on fire every time something goes bad in a game.

I just can’t see this any other way. To blame Ausmus for what we are seeing through 30 games this season is wrong. And to agree with that and still advocate for his termination because “something needs to change” — well, that’s just fence-sitting, patronizing an angry fan base. And wrong.

Ausmus is not coaching a high school team. He’s not coaching a group of young, unproven players. This is a veteran team, an expensive team and those high-priced players, the vast majority of them, are under-performing.

That’s really it. It doesn’t have to be anything more sinister than that.

For stretches the starting pitching has been bad, while the bullpen was good. Lately, the bullpen has blown up. The hitting has been maddeningly inconsistent with the exception of Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos.

The heart of the order — J.D. Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Upton — has not been nearly as productive as it has to be for this team to win consistently.

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What would you like Ausmus to do about that? Bench them? Fans howled when he gave Cabrera a much-needed day off — which he responded to by going 4-for-4 with two home runs the next day.

If those guys don’t hit, there’s no manager in the history of the game that could win with this team.

And to their credit, the players own up to this. They will tell anyone who asks, they are the problem, not management.

They know how hard the manager and his staff worked to prepare them for the season, and they don’t feel they are going into a game at a competitive disadvantage from a coaching standpoint.

It’s not like Ausmus just rolled out the balls and bats in spring training and turned them loose. Trust me, it was an intense spring training.

Case in point: I can’t imagine any team in baseball worked any harder on improving its base running than the Tigers did this spring. Just about every day, even during the Grapefruit League season, Ausmus, Omar Vizquel, Alan Trammell and, later, Kirk Gibson, would be on a field working with a group of base runners. Gibson worked with some of the players individually, as well.

And yet, early in the season the Tigers continue to make base running mistakes.

And on Twitter I will hear, “Why doesn’t the manager ever work on this stuff?”

Hold the players accountable

At some point, the accountability has to be on the players. These are highly-paid, experienced professionals.

Also, it’s not like the Tigers are being out-schemed or out-analyzed. The organization, thanks to general manager Al Avila’s initiatives, are no longer behind the curve in terms of analytics and Ausmus is very adept at sifting through and paring down the data to make it useful and not overwhelming to the players.

The Tigers, a strong right-handed hitting team, haven’t been beaten by five left-handed starters this season because they didn’t have all the relevant video and data on them. They aren’t getting fooled by breaking balls out of the zone because they weren’t aware that was the pitcher’s tendency.

Listen, if I truly thought Ausmus was in over his head as a manager, I would be the first to advocate for a change.

If I thought he was dispassionate, disinterested or just going through the motions of his job, I would advocate for a change.

If I saw a disconnection between the manager and his players. I would certainly advocate for a change. If I saw any sign that the players disrespected the manager, I would advocate for a change.

You will say, “Oh, the players aren’t going to tell you.” Some will. And you don’t always need to be told. I’ve covered every sports team in Detroit at this newspaper for more than two decades. I feel like I have a good sense of when a coach has lost his team.

None of that is the case. It wasn’t the case last year and it hasn’t been the case so far this year.

So if it makes me gutless to put the onus and accountability on the players, so be it.

If it makes me a shill to report things as accurately, fairly and objectively as possible, so be it.

Journalistically, my conscience is clear.

Twitter: @cmccosky